Hope Among the Heartless

Are we searching for new hope among the Heartless?
Are we finding peace and life, beyond closed eyes?
Are we seeking a new hope among the heartless?
Will we understand when all we know is fear?
Vanishing Point, “Hope Among the Heartless” (2007)

So it’s been a minute, huh? Finishing a book manuscript, it turns out, is not super-conducive to regular blogging. But I am pleased to report that, save for some minor revisions and formatting, Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto is written and ready for final submission to the press at the beginning of next month, with an anticipated publication date next spring. IT’S HAPPENING, PEOPLE. And that means, among other things, I’ll be updating this here blog much more frequently than has been the case over the last eight or nine months, as the biggest focus in my writing practice is now nearly complete.

Man, it felt good to type that.

In this post, though, I wanted to reflect a little bit on the process of that book and where I am now versus where I was when I started the project nearly three years ago. The book is actually an expanded, sharpened, and refined version of a post I wrote in this space back in July, 2016. That original manifesto had been percolating in my head for a bit, and my thought was that getting it down on (virtual) paper would help me do some personal reflective work as I began preparations for another academic year. But the post had some legs, and resonated with folks, which was both gratifying and humbling. Bonni Stachowiak asked if I would come on the Teaching In Higher Ed podcast to talk about it, and that gave me the chance to flesh out what I meant when I had written “teaching is a radical act of hope.”

What I was after was an affirmation of the importance and value of the work we do with and among students, but not one that sounded like some sort of fuzzy motivational poster or empty catchphrase. Thinking about the particularly challenging year I’d had, it struck me that hope is in many ways embodied in our everyday pedagogical practices. Teaching, with the liberation of critically-conscious students at its center, is the slow, steady drumbeat underneath the shrieking cacophony of the systems and institutions in which we and our students operate. It is a simple assertion that the future will be better than the present, backed up by the everyday actions it takes to advance that vision. The quotidian decisions we make about course materials, or what to do during a particular class session, or the ways in which we deliver feedback to students – these and countless other choices are components of a pedagogical worldview, whether we realize it or not.

From that, I came to realize that we wouldn’t care so much about those and the dozens of other everyday decisions, and we wouldn’t do what we do in the increasingly difficult circumstances in which we do it, if we didn’t think it mattered to and for our students. We don’t need to run screaming to the barricades every day (though there are certainly times we ought to do just that) to convey hope. We shouldn’t exhaust ourselves with continual pump-up-only-to-deflate-later practices: OK, I just went to a killer workshop and now I’ll revise all the courses AGAIN and this time we’ll get it right! Hope is not the product of the first mile, but all the miles after it. It’s more meaningful and effective to conceive of sustaining our practices over the long term; we have to understand that a pedagogy anchored in a sense of hope must be durably built and maintained.

The key here, though, is practice. That’s the “radical” in “radical hope”: a root-level, fundamental commitment to not just proclaiming, but embodying, a pedagogical worldview that is more than just the sum of its parts. In her essential Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency…To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Saying I’m hopeful doesn’t mean anything. “Giving myself to the future” to “make the present inhabitable” does. And, as far as descriptions of teaching go, that one ain’t bad.

So when I was asked if I had thought about expanding my manifesto into a book, I jumped at the chance. I welcomed the opportunity to think about what a pedagogy of radical hope would mean for people across a wide variety of contexts and situations in higher education: what does it look like to teach with radical hope? That was what I wanted my book to answer. Not, as I eventually wrote in my introduction, to be the way, but simply one way to center one’s pedagogy in that ethic.

I signed a contract, and got to writing.

And then the election of 2016 happened.

And then I was supposed to be writing a book about hope in…well…this. In an environment where every core belief I possessed was rejected by those in power and their slavering sycophants. Where all the stuff that we weren’t supposed to normalize became normal. Where the rocks kept getting kicked over and the creatures kept crawling out. Where reading the news, or hopping on Twitter, was like standing in front of a firehose spewing sewage.

How’s your book going, Kevin?

Oh, fine.

What’s it on again?

Um….hope.

Interview Crying GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The manuscript ground to a halt for about a year. Because, well….*gestures wildly at everything*

And when I started back in on it in 2018, what emerged were a few chapters that were basically Stuff I Was Angry About. Not surprisingly, my editor was unsure that people would appreciate a book that claimed to be about teaching with hope yet instead bludgeoned them for over a hundred pages. You know, he said, this would all work better if it was…completely different. And so I was back to the beginning. What the hell was I doing? Would I even finish this thing? I had written a lot of words on a lot of topics over the year, but could I actually put something out into the world? I wasn’t so sure.

One of my favorite bands, an Australian prog-metal outfit called Vanishing Point, have a great song called “Hope Among the Heartless.” Over the last few years, the song has even more resonance for me[1] in its question “will we understand when all we know is fear?” Looking for hope – for not just my manuscript but in a society that seemed nothing if not heartless – became something I wasn’t just writing about, but actively chasing. Much of my energy, however, was coming from fear of what might happen if I couldn’t sustain the effort, if I couldn’t write my way into…something, anything. What kind of fraud writes a book expounding the practice of hope when he seemingly can’t hold onto it for longer than ten minutes himself?

Hopeless enemy, soulless energy,
Empty synergy, inside you and me.

How did I avoid becoming the fraud I was afraid of becoming? It’s not like the political context has gotten any better; indeed, it’s worse than ever, with nazi cosplayers, bad-faith pundits, and concentration camp apologists coming out of the woodwork.

This machine turns, full of hate.
We destroy what we create.

How did I finish the book?

There are a lot of answers to that question, but I had to decide to look for them and let them sustain me before they became my answers. I saw student after student succeed where they hadn’t before, their confidence becoming visible. I saw undocumented students cross the stage and grab their college degree. I saw colleagues get the recognition (and promotions and tenure) they earned through dedicated, compassionate teaching and incisive, relevant scholarship. I saw my daughter catch fire from her study of the civil rights era in her middle school civics class. I talked with students at colleges and universities, my own campus and many others, and was inspired by their dedication, perseverance, and – especially – their inexorable commitment to justice and equity. I worked with faculty and staff on my own campus and many others, and saw their dedication to what Paulo Freire called praxis, the consilience of reflection and action, attuned to liberatory purposes.

I have found my people, and in turn their people, on Twitter, and in books, and at conferences and coffeeshops, and, and, and.

And I found that radical hope, the quiet, reliable drumbeat that was my soundtrack the whole time, even when I wasn’t listening.

Then I wrote about it.

It’s not going to solve all the world’s problems, and it’s not going to solve all of higher ed’s problems. There will still be awful things happening on an all-too-regular basis. But this book is trying to “make the present inhabitable” by asking us to commit to a vision of the future that both we and our students can actually live out. I hope the book makes this sense of hope tangible and achievable, instead of empty and ethereal.

Lee Skallerup Bessette (@readywriting on Twitter), whose writing never fails to move me, had a wonderful blog post that closes with the passage “I wrote myself into existence. I keep writing myself forward. I can keep writing myself until the end.” And that’s it, isn’t it? Sometimes I have to write to discover what’s there, give it form, and then send it out in the world.

The book, which is not a long one, may have taken more time than I ever thought it would to write (How long does it take to write a fucking manifesto? Shit, Marx and Engels banged out the Communist Manifesto in less than seven weeks!). But it is a genuine book that means every word it says. And that’s not nothing. If you teach – and I believe anyone who works with students teaches in one way or another (because students are most certainly learning from you) – I hope that, if you choose to read the book, it helps ground your sense of hope, even and especially among the heartless.

  1. [1] I should note, however, that Vanishing Point broke up almost a decade ago – which is sadly ironic in this context, I guess.

3 Replies to “Hope Among the Heartless”

  1. This is a wonderful update. I hope to buy your book soon and learn to teach with “Radical hope,” if I’m blessed with a chance to teach to undergraduates.

  2. Congratulations on gittin’ it done, Kevin. It is indeed damned difficult to continue working for a better future when the present days and the visible future paths seem so shitty.

    I learned the “show up every day for hope” praxis from Zen, and especially from American Zen teachers. Natalie Goldberg, in her *Long Quiet Highway,* says of daily pre-dawn meditation practice (paraphrased):

    “You could do it because you wanted to be noticed, because you wanted enlightenment, because you knew others expected it, because you wanted to be a better person. But finally, practice became empty of all that: you just did it because you did it.”

    Thanks for your great effort.

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